Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Locating Change

Ever since that Esotouric tour of Main St. and the surrounding area, my interest in the local history of burlesque has only deepened.  I started a Pinterest board where I'm trying to pool photos of all the historic L.A. burlesque houses (most of which are now parking lots, I'm sad to say) and I've been spending considerable time in the Los Angeles Times archives, reading as much as possible.

The generally accepted derivation for "burlesque" is the Italian word "burla," which is an old commedia dell'arte term:

Burla (pl. burle)    comic interlude or practical joke introduced, usually extempore, into a performance by the servant masks of the commedia dell'arte. Unlike the lazzo, the burla involved some horseplay and could be developed at will into a small independent ‘turn’, the characters returning at its conclusion to the main theme of the plot. Although there is no adequate English translation of the word, the terms burletta and burlesque derive from it.
(ref: Oxford Reference Online)

Only recently (in the past 70 years or so) has Burlesque become synonymous with striptease.  But when exactly did that change take place?
COMING ATTRACTION. The sale of seats opens this morning at the Los Angeles Theater for the spectacular extravaganza, “The Spider and the Fly,” which comes to this playhouse for four nights and Saturday matinee, Thursday, January 18. This will be Los Angeles’ first big burlesque attraction, and no doubt the only one this season.
-- Los Angeles Times, January 15, 1900
According to ProQuest, and as far as I've been able to determine the above quote is from the earliest mention of burlesque in the Los Angeles Times (at least, the earliest reference to burlesque as a thing.  There are earlier uses of the term, as in "the local courts have become a burlesque of justice.")  I've found reviews and advertisements of burlesque plays between the 1900s and the 1920s, when the term began to refer more explicitly to striptease artistry.  Now I'm trying to track down exactly when the change occurred.

History is fun.  It's far easier to pinpoint when important change has occurred in hindsight; it is far easier to divine the meaning of events long after they've happened.  It is virtually impossible to draw a bead on your situation when you are smack in the middle of it.  William Goldman once said that in Hollywood, nobody knows anything.  Right.  Because they are in it.

The search for meaning may be a job for historians.  For us in the now, it is enough to continue the work.  "It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."  Thus spoke Lincoln, albeit about more important things than mere entertainment.

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